It happens to me all the time. I’ll be walking across the square on my way home from work and I’ll see someone shift from photographing the building, to trying to sneak a photograph of me. Or if I’m sitting alone in a café, quietly having my lunch on my own, (ESPECIALLY if I’m eating on my own) to escape from the noise of the office, when I’ll feel myself being observed, and spot someone trying to sneak a photograph of me from a nearby table with their mobile phone. I’ve been sitting on the train or a bus, or at the platform/bus stop, when I’ve spotted someone surreptitiously moving the lens of their camera or phone towards me to sneak a picture. On more than one occasion I’ve been watching the news and seen my own body, with my head cropped out, as a headless fatty on a news bulletin about the “obesity epidemic”. And one horrible time, some years ago, a colleague I didn’t know very well discreetly came and told me that he had seen a photo of me on a website devoted to humiliating ugly people. At the time, I was absolutely devastated. These days I’d probably give him a serve for looking at such websites!
People think I’m stupid, that I can’t see when they’re aiming their cameras and mobile phones at me. Others think I’m paranoid, imagining that people are photographing me in public, but several experiences of seeing myself as a headless fatty on the evening news (and once in a newspaper) and turning up on websites, is more than enough evidence. I don’t imagine this shit and I’m not the only one it happens to. How often do you see pop up on Twitter, someone posting a photo of a stranger they see on the bus or train or some other public place, saying “Check out this weird person?” I’ve unfollowed all of the people who think it’s ok to do that, but occasionally a new one crops up. Why are there sites like that Walmart one, or ones devoted to bad fashion, “weird” people or ugly people?
It’s because we live in a culture that thinks that just because they have a camera in their hand, they’re allowed to photograph people for the purpose of ridicule.
I’ve also had people suggest that these folks are taking my photo without my consent because “You’re awesome Kath.” That is true, I am awesome. But the people who think I’m awesome and want my photo have the decency to come and ask my consent. That happens every now and again, someone will come up to me and say “I love your hair, could I take your photo?” Or “Your outfit is so cool, can I get a picture of you?”
Sometimes people say to me “Well, perhaps if you didn’t cut your hair like that, or dye it bright colours, they wouldn’t photograph you.” Sometimes they deem the way I dress being the reason for people photographing me. But the thing is, no matter what the reason, be it my coloured hair, my bold style of dress, my fatness, my cropped hair, whether they think I’m ugly… no matter what reason someone is photographing me without my consent, doesn’t excuse them for doing it… without my damn consent and for the purpose of putting my photograph online or on the news or in the paper to ridicule. “Oh but you make yourself so noticeable!” these people say. I am not going to disappear, to hide away just to avoid rude people who feel the need to photograph anyone who looks different for the purpose of ridicule. I don’t wear my hair the way I do, or dress the way I do to get attention. I do it because those are the things I like. I love coloured hair, I love bright clothes and unique style. I make my appearance the way I do, because it pleases ME.
Having control over who photographs us and how we are represented in photographs is often seen as vanity or even self consciousness (the old “that’s not flattering” malarkey), but to me, it’s about having control over my identity. It’s about ownership of my own body, appearance and identity. People who just photograph others for their own amusement or to ridicule are treating the subjects they photograph as if they are public property. No matter where we are, in public or in private, our bodies are our own property and we have every right to choose what happens to our bodies, including the photographing of them.
This is one of the reasons that I am really excited about working on a project with Dr Lauren Gurrieri of the Griffith University, which I will tell you more about when I can. One of the components of the project is fat activists being photographed by a professional (and talented) documentary photographer. I love the idea of choosing to be photographed on my terms, in places and settings that I feel represent me, by someone I feel comfortable with.
It’s not going to be easy, handing over the reins to the photographer, even though I do trust him and have seen his excellent work. It’s not easy for most people to relax and allow someone to photograph them going about their day (or even posing) because we’re conditioned to believe we’re horrible and that we need to vet every photograph taken of us. But when you have people in the street thinking it’s funny to photograph you to show their mates or put on the internet for ridicule, or you’ve seen yourself decapitated on the evening news as a representation of something that needs to be cured/prevented/eradicated… well, you’ve got a whole lot of shit you’re carrying around to deal with that most people don’t have to.
But it’s also important to claim back my body for myself, and to not let the people who haven’t got a shred of basic respect for others to claim ownership of my identity.
It’s also important to call out this behaviour. It’s not easy, but when we see our friends or family taking “sneaky” (they’re never sneaky enough to escape notice by the subject of the photograph, believe me, I notice) photos on their mobile phones and cameras, or posting things to their Facebook or Twitter to snark at them, we have to speak up. We have to make sure that people know this kind of behaviour is unacceptable.
Because just because it isn’t us this time, doesn’t mean we won’t be the ones being photographed without our consent next time.